In Partnership with La French Tech SF – Julie Chapon, co-founder of YUKA, a mobile app that analyzes food & cosmetic products’ impact on health and on the environment.

Julie Chapon is a 35-year-old entrepreneur and mother of two. She is also in charge of marketing, communication, customer service, and content creation for Yuka, which is a free mobile app that allows users to scan the barcodes of food and cosmetic products and instantly see their impact on health.

She managed to get 36 million people to download Yuka without spending a cent on advertising.

She is passionate about nutrition and loves to write about it! She also values female entrepreneurship, especially in Tech. In January 2017, her co-founders Benoît and François Martin decided to make products and their ingredients more transparent so that consumers can make more informed choices.

“Despite the obstacles, we are here today because we are making an impact and helping to make things happen.”

French Tech San Francisco: Can you tell us about your background and the origins of the Yuka project?

Julie Chapon – I went to business school and then joined a consulting firm specializing in digital transformation. After five years, I had a lot of questions. I really lacked meaning in my work and I wanted to invest my time better. And the planets aligned so my friend François and his brother Benoît Martin asked me to join them on an idea they had. Benoit, who has children, wanted to buy them healthier food products. By talking around us, we realized that many people in fact shared this need. With this idea, we participated in a hackathon on the theme of food. Over a weekend, we developed the beginnings of what Yuka is today. The idea at the time was a connected object in the shape of a carrot that was magnetized on the fridge and scanned the products once at home. We won the contest, and I realized that I loved working on this project with them. That’s how the adventure began for us in 2016.
Then, for a year we developed the project and the app while keeping our jobs in parallel, in order to maintain some security. Then we decided to go full-time.

FTSF: What were the milestones, the turning points that set you on your way and landed you where you are today?

JC – The first shift was away from connected objects. At the time of the creation of the project, in 2016, there was a lot of talk about connected objects, especially in the food industry. We were convinced at the beginning that the object was the right tool for our project. We finally decided to make a “simple application” because we realized that we needed to be able to scan in-store before buying, and not after. This completely changed the paradigm of the project because it allowed us to envision a service accessible to everyone.

In January 2017, we launched the app and in June, we launched a nutrition program, including nutrition tips and recipes. From the beginning, we wanted to avoid being a company that depended on fundraising. That’s why we wanted to generate value and show that we could be a company that creates value while having an impact.

The third transition came in January 2018, when we passed the 1 million user mark. Our goal at the time, to continue the journey, was to reach 10,000 users. We realized at that point that the project had grown unexpectedly and that we would have to adapt to this new dimension.

In June 2018, we raised funds with two objectives: recruiting to be able to face the strong growth of the project, and launching the analysis of cosmetics and hygiene products.

This fundraising was on our terms, using Business Angels who agreed to our values and conditions.

Another key step was the start of international development in 2019. We started with neighboring countries from which we received a lot of requests: Belgium, Switzerland, and Luxembourg. Then we opened other European countries as we went along in Spain, the United Kingdom, Italy… Finally, we tackled other continents by launching more recently the United States, Canada, and Australia.

FTSF: How is the work divided between the three founders? And what kind of backup team do you have?

JC – We are very complementary, which is what motivated us to join forces. François is in charge of the technical part, he is a geek who is passionate about code. He is the one who developed the application and the website. Benoît, François’ older brother, takes care of all the legal, administrative, accounting, and financial aspects of the business. And I, Julie Chapon manage all the communication and customer service. We are a small committed team of ten people. Our numbers are small but it shows that you don’t need to be a big company to do great things.

FTSF: Today, Yuka has 36 million users in 12 countries. How do you explain this growth?

JC – First of all, I think we came at the right time, after a wave of health scandals that had contributed to a growing mistrust of the food industry by consumers. People were really looking for more transparency and we responded to this need. Second, word of mouth. We never advertised, and our users fueled our growth by talking about Yuka. We owe them a lot.  We also got media coverage fairly quickly, which also contributed to our growth.

FTSF: How does the app work?

JC – The app is very simple to use; just scan the barcode of a food or cosmetic product to find out its rating. The latter is accompanied by a color code ranging from green to red. For each product, the app also provides access to more detailed information. For poorly rated products, the application also recommends similar products that are better for your health. These recommendations are made independent of any outside influences.

Independence is key for us. This means that no brand or industry can pay us to change their rating or to appear in the recommendations.

We also have a premium version of the application (for a fee), which gives access to additional features (offline scanning, search bar, customizable alerts). This premium version is now our main source of revenue.

yuka_MerciSF_FrenchTechFTSF: What are your main obstacles and challenges?

JC – One of our biggest challenges came at the end of 2019 when we launched a petition with “foodwatch” and the “Ligue against cancer” to demand a ban on added nitrites in food. It is important to know that in 2010, the WHO (World Health Organization) classified ingested nitrites and nitrates as probable carcinogens (category 2A).
This petition has collected more than 370,000 signatures so far, which has caused a lot of noise. One year later, we received three court summonses from the FICT (Fédération française des Industriels Charcutiers Traiteurs) and from two companies controlled by the vice president of the FICT. We were initially condemned 3 times and had to pay €95,000. In addition, we had to spend more than € 400,000 on defense costs. We appealed these three decisions and in December 2022, we won our first appeal, the opposing party having been dismissed of all its claims. The judges recognized Yuka’s right to inform and warn about the health risks of added nitrites.

FTSF: What solutions have you implemented?
JC – This ordeal has cost us a lot of money (more than €500,000 to date, and it’s not over yet because the proceedings are still ongoing), time (which we haven’t spent on our international development), and energy. One of the solutions came from our users who heard our condemnations in the media and were outraged. Many of them spontaneously suggested that we launch a fund so that they could help us pay our defense costs. The launch of this fund was key because it allowed us to collect almost €400,000.

In the end, even if all these legal cases on nitrites are a difficult ordeal, we say to ourselves that if we are there today, it is because we have an impact and that we participate in changing and moving things. That’s our victory.

FTSF: Yuka is already present in the US, tell us about the first steps and the perspectives:

JC – With the success of Yuka in Europe, we then wanted to expand to the United States, as we knew there was a lot to do there on these topics as well. In 2020, in the middle of a lockdown, we launched the app in the US. We had some downloads but not much compared to the scale of the country.
It was later, in January 2022, that the word-of-mouth effect kicked in. A video was posted on TikTok by a user. The video went viral and garnered over 7 million views. Immediately, we saw a spike in downloads in the U.S. and since then, interest has continued to grow. The US market is now a key challenge for us. We decided with François, Benoît, and our families to move to New York for some time to accompany and accelerate this growth.
Our objective is to better understand the market and the buying behaviors and to make the app known to as many people as possible by getting media coverage.

FTSF: What could an organization like La French Tech do for you?

JC – We are going to arrive next September without knowing anyone, the functioning of the country, the institutions, the administration, the market… An organization like La French Tech will be a great help to put us in contact with the right people, create synergies and save us time and money. We are interested in many areas such as being well-supported on legal, administrative, PR, and commercial issues.

Website: https://yuka.io/

Interview by Sophie Rougerie / French Tech SF

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